Can less mean more?
The Cavalier Daily’s restructuring plans, which cut back printing while promising digital substitutes, come down to money
Call me a cynic, but I doubt anyone who says cutting back on something is going to make it better. So I was more than skeptical when I read about The Cavalier Daily’s “comprehensive plan to shift focus from the traditional daily newspaper to a digital-first newsroom,” that would replace the nearly daily newspaper “with a revamped biweekly newsmagazine and expand online and mobile content offerings.” The newsmagazine, we’re promised, will “offer extensive analysis, informative graphics and an increased focus on features, local entertainment and weekend previews.” Matt Cameron, in his last days as the paper’s editor-in-chief, said the newsmagazine will have “more of the in-depth, investigative journalism that our readers crave.” Meanwhile, the new digital emphasis will bring “mobile and tablet apps, a daily e-newsletter, high-quality multimedia content and an increased emphasis on social media and web graphics.”
In a memo to the staff, the managing board declared itself “confident about the benefits this plan will produce.”
Managing board members said of the restructuring: “It will expand our coverage opportunities by allowing us to afford sending reporters to out-of-state events. It will improve our visibility by freeing up the time and resources necessary to invest in expanded multimedia, mobile apps, online reporting and investigative reporting that will appeal to our target audience. And it will expose future staffers to new reporting techniques, sales strategies and technologies that are vital for professional success in the 21st century.”
There will be less, but that really means more. And better.
“Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs are becoming increasingly popular,” Kaz Komolafe, the new editor-in-chief, said in the press release. “After an assessment of the newspaper, we decided the best way of riding the wave of contemporary journalism was to move with the times.”
The Cavalier Daily isn’t alone in trying to work out its place in contemporary journalism.
Warren Buffett — more properly, Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway — has been buying newspapers since the 1970s, but the big push began last year, when the company bought 63 newspapers from Media General. In a memo to editors, Buffett wrote: “I believe newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future.”
Berkshire Hathaway’s plan is to keep the paper version of each publication vibrant while doing more online.
Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes is trying to bring The New Republic, a 98-year-old magazine, into this new age with a similar plan. “It used to be,” Hughes said on National Public Radio last week, “you gave us $35 and we give you 20 issues of print a year. That just isn’t gonna cut it in 2013. So now our model is, you give us $35 a year, we give you 20 issues of print, we also give you unlimited access on the Web, we give you audio versions, we give you comments …”
The Cavalier Daily’s readers are online, so The Cavalier Daily plans to go there, too. The paper’s new website launched in August. According to Cameron, website visits increased 37 percent from September to November. Twitter followers quintupled over the past year. Facebook “likes” tripled. Meanwhile, fewer papers were being picked up.
“Rather than try to fight those trends,” Cameron said in an email, “we decided to embrace them.”
The editors believe that publishing on paper less often will give the staff more time to work on these initiatives.
“Time is an invaluable resource, especially for students,” Komolafe wrote in an email. “The daily print edition is extremely time-intensive.”
Yet the staff will still be producing stories every day.
“We will still maintain our daily news stories online, which will meet the same exacting standards to which we hold our current print and online coverage,” Komolafe wrote. “We will also be sending out an electronic newsletter which will keep readers informed about the meaty stories of which we think they need to be aware.”
It’s not clear that cutting the print editions will save as much time as the editors expect, particularly if they intend to do more investigative reporting and more multimedia projects. Those things take time. Multimedia projects also require equipment and training. The Cavalier Daily has a grant that may pay for the hardware. The paper has applied for grants to cover software and training.
These changes really come down to money. Printing less often means lower printing costs. Lower costs put the paper on sounder financial footing. Some of the money saved can help pay for better journalism, something as simple as buying gas so a reporter can drive to Richmond to cover a story such as Helen Dragas’ reappointment to the Board of Visitors.
It’s still difficult to believe The Cavalier Daily can produce a daily flow of online news while adding more and better multimedia projects and producing more investigative journalism simply because two more days of the week will pass without a paper version of the publication. And yet, with readers migrating online and demanding in-depth journalism to go with twitter-sized news nuggets and well-produced multimedia presentations, it’s difficult to see what else this newspaper can do.
Tim Thornton is the ombudsman for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.